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Bypassing Business World Bias

In the Workplace, biases hinder far more than they help.

Bypassing Business World Bias

It is possible to overcome implicit Bias in the business world. As difficult as it is to admit, human beings are far more reactive than responsive; more times than not, the average person is on autopilot, just trying to get through the day. Despite our best intentions, Bias can creep in, and without constant perseverance, the stereotyping and prejudices you are battling against can affect your thinking and further hamper you. Only by knowing what to look for can we identify the barrier and move past it. How to view the world through unfettered vision will benefit any reader, whether you are trying to smash the glass ceiling yourself, remove illogical and counterproductive habits from your hiring team, or learn how to undo the all too human fear of “other” within yourself. Identifying which thoughts and feelings are unworthy and working toward seeing people as individuals will bring new levels of dynamic synergy to your office or team. Challenge yourself to stop as soon as you find yourself assuming implicit traits, and you will be better equipped to overcome those obstacles when you come across them.

What is Bias?

As we dig into this topic, it is crucial to recognize that the formation of biases is automatic; the unconscious creation of shortcuts and abbreviations is the brain’s way of conserving energy. I am not even talking about mental exhaustion, which can be hard to pin down, but the actual caloric burn the human body expends to do work. Thinking uses the metabolism’s energy just like exercise, making the brain cut corners wherever it can.

We suffer from Bias ourselves if we think everyone who stereotypes or holds prejudicial thoughts is “actively racist”; it’s a psychological phenomenon we all must guard against not the sole domain of Klansmen and Nazis. Learning about the broader category of mental failings called Cognitive Bias is a lesson unto itself, but let’s focus on the implicit and its impact on the world of business in particular. 

Implicit Bias is an unconscious attitude, belief, or association that links specific characteristics to a particular group. We usually hear this called “stereotyping,” which we all do to some degree. Anytime you fail to recognize the individual apart from whatever group you have put them in, you consider some traits implicit to that group. Once you fall into the fallacy that “all this group is that way,” the less range they are allowed, you narrow what is possible, and the organization as a whole suffers.

There is a reason that movement in society, even civilization as a whole, has been toward inclusion and diversity. The more ideas you have, the more likely you will find the perfect one. We learn to brainstorm, mind map, and collaborate at a young age, but if we only surround ourselves with people who think like us, this process can be fruitless, even recursive. On a larger scale, the insular and isolated might gain power temporarily, but people inevitably break out of whatever pigeonhole they have been placed in and come out victorious. When narrow-minded leaders demand uniformity and obedience over individuality and freedom, the group will wither and fail next to an organization that embraces change and diversity. Call it the indomitable human spirit or just humans being unpredictable as a whole, but betting on your fellows to surprise you is far safer than betting on

In the Workplace, biases hinder far more than they help. The boss might take a software problem to a young person on the erroneous belief that the
younger generation all know computers. A woman’s emotional life is acceptable, but men are seldom encouraged to emote, let alone show sadness or
vulnerability. Highly qualified candidates get passed over because they have a foreign name or are a woman. When you are on the losing side of privilege and attempting to get around the barriers put up by those in charge, you will eventually come up against a classic dilemma.

Smash the glass ceiling or go around it?

As an upwardly mobile employee, do you tackle preconceptions and false beliefs head-on or take a more cautious approach? Will you assimilate to the norms or demonstrate a valid alternative? 

Blending in and adapting can only be recommended so far, as the risk of losing your identity to a new group is unpalatable or unthinkable to many of us. Still, if what you give up is minor, and the gains are significant enough to make small compromises comfortable, it is part of the human condition to mirror groups we wish to join. If the losses are smaller than the advantages, one can make superficial and meaningless changes as a way to dance around someone’s prejudices until you are in a better position to address them. 

In the case of an unusual name or unpopular gender, using initials or even completely changing your character can get you a foot in the door. However, If the individual you must go through is invested in their biases, no subtle information manipulation will overcome it. Sometimes, you must confront the real complex cases directly, and occasionally all it takes is a disarmingly friendly comment. Daryl Davis turned more than 200 KKK members away from their group with nothing more than polite conversation. You can not fight fire with fire, and while this man might serve a rather extreme example, it is proof that surmounting someone’s barriers can be done one-on-one. On a business or professional level, it can be quite a bit harder. Choosing a tactic will depend entirely on what types of biases you are seeking to overcome.

 Your approach to overcoming biases in the professional sector can vary. J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author who is now more prosperous than the Queen of England, and MANY women writers, leave their first names as initials or all but bury the fact that they are female. There is merit in the idea of obscuring those aspects which you know will trigger a bias if only long enough to get before the person and prove them wrong. Looking at the numbers, it is not hard to see why Joann Rowling chose to publish under the initials JK right up until the very end. There is such a heavy gender bias in the literary marketplace, especially Young Adult that her reluctance to put her first name on the first few runs is understandable. Of course, once famous or established in the marketplace, this Bias all but disappears, and the gap is narrowing as more and more men pick women writers. The same is true for ethnic or otherwise unusual names.

 When confronted with a name they consider “ethnic” or strange, employers pass them over 28% more. That’s huge. More than a quarter of your eligibility hinges on name alone! Do you change it or keep it? Your name might mean everything to you, or it might not be something you consider a big deal. When hiring, have someone stick Post-It notes over the name and gender. Obscure addresses, too, if your area has definite socio-economic sectors. The pay gap between men and women and caucasian and non-white people is undeniable. It can feel futile, even counterproductive, to fight that kind of ingrained systemic disparity. You have to take hope in the fact that those are averages, trends, and composites. Exceptions, regulatory mandates, and social pressures are inextricably moving those demographics into unity. Once you are part of the team, a whole new set of biases can come up. The concept of White Privilege gets attacked almost as much as it is explored, but never having to think about these kinds of things is a privilege all on its own.

Positive biases are still negative

It can be tempting to believe that there’s nothing wrong with holding on to more benevolent generalizations about people. The fact is that even when you think the best about a particular group, the net result will still be inferior. Individuals, too, suffer when you fail to recognize unique features. Sometimes called The Halo Effect, there is a tendency to believe that someone good at one thing will be good at all things. The seemingly positive Bias leads to people holding leadership positions they have no business occupying. The most obvious example is when someone is good-looking, we assume they are also charismatic and intelligent. Someone good at sales is supposed to be a people person, and the top seller gets promoted to team lead regardless of their actual management ability.

 The opposite also happens, appropriately enough called the Horns Effect, where someone makes an error once and carries the stigma of being a failure forever after. Being aware of these brain habits can help you avoid falling victim to that particular facet of self-delusion. Over time, performance can change, and while past behavior is the best determination of future behavior, it is by no means the only one. When we allow for a bad day, nurture personal and professional growth, and practice self-reflection, we ensure forward progress and growth are maintained.

The problem with thinking the best of a group becomes apparent the more absurd it is. Being a boy in the 80s, I grew up hearing that black people had an extra muscle in their leg, which explained the success of black athletes. No, an impartial referee and hundreds of witnesses give marginalized communities one of the only places they can succeed. “Asians are good at math” is false, if only by realizing that billions of human beings are categorized as Asian, and not all excel at arithmetic. A culture of education and excellence exists in the United States and Asia, but burnout can result in sacrificing too much in the name of productivity.

Having read about classroom environments and parental oversight of school activities in Japan, I am ready to concede that Japanese natives might be better at taking tests and getting high marks. Famous for its intensity, many of the grueling problems that famously plagued the Japanese business world are the same ones the rest of the world now suffers. Far from unique, feeling overworked and exploited is as universal an experience as you can find. Lack of reward is another reason making great sacrifices to be a part of an uncompromising group may not be the best plan. Sometimes you need to keep your head down, but other times you need to rock the boat.

Workplace iconoclast

Meaning’ image breaker’ in Latin, an Iconoclast in the modern age, defies expectations, breaks the mold, and otherwise challenges firmly held ideas. It is to the benefit of all that ‘the scales fall from your eyes and you see the world as it truly is.’ Yes, I am falling back on cliches and Biblical aphorisms, if only to point out how long we have struggled to come to terms with our brain telling us one thing but our mind saying another. When memory (what we learn) conflicts with experience, we are challenged. We get into Conflict Mode when we disrupt a long-term habit and either dig in and shut down or flip the script and remain open. As we move against the grain, swim upstream, and otherwise push against the biases of others, we improve life not only for those who come after us but improve the life of the person who changed their mind.

 In one of the most famous examples of gender bias, an assertive woman is far more likely to be considered heavy-handed and oppressive. At the same time, the same behavior in a man makes him a good leader and decisive. At the same time, a man who demonstrates empathy and sympathizes with emotions might be considered “soft” or even feminine. As these gross generalities recede, we can be mindful of double-checking those thoughts for integrity or anything that crosses our mind that is all-encompassing. When we generalize, we lose out. While the brain might like to categorize things as broadly as possible, it is up to our higher mind to parse that shortcut for utility and truth, narrowing down those grand approximations until we arrive at the truth: a unique human being with peaks and valleys particular to themselves.


Maryville University outlined some pretty easy steps you can take to rid yourself of biases, as well. While the people who need these lessons the most are often the least likely to take them, with patience and commitment, a dedicated friend or partner can use a few of these techniques one-on-one, if not try to implement such conditions on a large scale within an organization. If you are afraid of revealing your biases or just shy, fear not: you can practice a few of these things alone.

Spend time with people outside your regular group. This breaking of your routine could be as simple as sitting in a new place at lunch or as deep as attending a different church or visiting the service of another religion altogether! Socially, chat someone up whom you would never think of approaching; this isn’t necessarily a romantic interest, but you’ll be surprised at the results in any case. Pushing your boundaries can be difficult; changing your mind often comes with a sting. By challenging ourselves, we achieve actual personal development; growing pains should not be exclusive to bodies in childhood. 

Reflect and introspect your thoughts and actions. Journaling, or any externalization of your experiences, will give you unique insights into yourself that are otherwise impossible. Just getting it out of your head and into the world is enough to provide you with understanding. “The rubber ducky” method, popularized by programmers and public speakers, works just as well for our purposes: talk things over with an inanimate object. It should have a face of some kind because you can fool the unconscious mind into working through a complex subject as if you were trying to teach this way. Please slow down, take the other’s perspective, and remember their individuality. We slow down our words not only to be understood but to give ourselves time to think, too. If we can consider the person’s point of view, then we can better appreciate what they are telling us and the truth it holds. We don’t have to honor an uneducated guess on a practical matter, but we should always look at how the person came to that conclusion. After all, if nobody is right all the time, that includes us, too. 

The process is ongoing

Nobody is ever free from Bias. Social equanimity is a long and winding road, with the modern resurgence of white nationalism sending shockwaves through the world. When information on any topic imaginable is at your fingertips, many seek to wrap themselves in what they want to be true instead of correct. Confirmation Bias is when we do just that, cherrypicking our sources and narrowing our focus to those we know to align with our own. The more sure you are in a thing, the more rigorously you have to challenge it. The Judicial Branch exists because we know, as a nation, that no rule can apply to all equally. Subtly and nuance are built into the very fabric of the United States, a plurality that was once celebrated but has come under fire in recent years. Make no mistakes, what made America great was never old white men wielding power unilaterally but immigrants bringing their ideas to our shores. Never allow yourself to fall into a rut, least of all as it relates to humanity. The overwhelming diversity of our psychology means that you can’t make broad declarative statements about an individual, much less a population. Even if you find a trait shared by everyone in a demographic, the variety of that trait’s expression and the lack of some individuals to exhibit it at all should give you more than pause. On the other hand, if you find yourself racing toward a metal barrier, make sure it surrounds something you want to join. A woman who breaks a glass ceiling may find herself stuck on a board that won’t listen to her; sometimes proving herself isn’t enough. It is possible to win all challenges and still stalemate. It is not always worth doing, but a retreat is an option when forward progress is impossible and lateral movement is undesirable. Losing a battle to win a war, I think, is the expression if you are ever going to rise above. 

Overcoming the implicit Bias in the business world uses many of the same tips and techniques you use to overcome the same in your personal life. The journey of professional development often leads one to personal. After all, we end up being our own worst enemy most of the time; shedding implicit Bias toward others can just as easily be applied to ourselves.

After all, if we can’t rely on ourselves to be even-handed and fair, how can we expect the rest of the world to be? By smashing those implicit biases, you make yourself aware of them, and that knowledge comes with the responsibility to avoid applying labels to people without consideration. Our brains will organize things into groups and see patterns where there are none automatically. Taking even a second to realign a knee-jerk reaction into a considered analysis will pay off, not only in your personal life but an increased bottom line, too. Humanity dominated other hominids and nature itself in our march toward civilization, but we did it together.

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